INTERNATIONAL. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out today in support of the right of Saudi women to drive, a day after her spokeswoman advocated “quiet diplomacy” as a more effective way to tackle the issue.
“What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right,” Clinton said today at a news conference when asked about her stance on the driving ban. “The effort belongs to them. I am moved by it and I support them.”
Clinton’s public comments come after a coalition of Saudi activists yesterday released a letter, dated June 3, calling on the top U.S. diplomat and highest-ranking female in the Obama administration to take a stand. Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton spoke to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on June 17 and broached the subject. That was not deemed sufficient by the Saudi women getting behind the wheel.
“Quiet diplomacy is not what we need right now,” according to Saudi Women for Driving, a group of women’s-rights activists, bloggers and academics challenging the world’s only ban on female drivers. “What we need is for you, personally, to make a strong, simple and public statement supporting our right to drive.”
The driving campaign began when a group of Saudis called, through the Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. social-networking websites, on women with international driver’s licenses to get in their cars and drive on June 17. They said their plan wasn’t a protest. Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has avoided the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world this year.
One of the organizers, Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old computer-security consultant, was arrested last month in the city of al-Khobar, in Eastern Province, after she drove on more than one occasion and urged other women to drive in a video she posted on YouTube, according to Amnesty International. The human-rights group said al-Sharif was forced to sign a pledge that she wouldn’t drive again and was released 10 days later.
“Beep beep and solidarity to the Saudi women & supporters challenging the driving ban!” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote on Twitter on June 17.
The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on November 6, 1990, when U.S. troops massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia enforces restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Women aren’t allowed to apply for a driver’s license, though some drive when they’re in desert areas away from cities. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places. They aren’t permitted to vote or run as candidates in municipal elections, the only balloting the kingdom allows.